Mainstream news outlets in the United States, whose politics are closely aligned with those of the U.S. government, frequently criticize mainstream media outlets in Russia, whose politics are closely aligned to those of the Russian government. Current example: recent events in Ukraine.
“Russian officials have been doing everything they can to make it clear that they don’t recognize the legitimacy of this current parliament or its right to form an interim government,” NPR’s Corey Flintoff reported Feb. 26. “The impression that ordinary Russians would get from [their] news coverage is really that the Ukrainian Revolution is very much a thing to be feared.”
Flintoff made fun of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who called the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “essentially the result of an armed mutiny.” Russian Interior Minister Sergey Lavrov said it was “an attempt at a coup d’état and to seize power by force.”
Yet American media insist on the R-word: revolution. Here we go again.
In U.S. and Western media, both the Tahrir Square “people power” demonstrations that removed Hosni Mubarak and the military coup that imprisoned the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi are called Egyptian “revolutions.” So is the Benghazi-based insurgency that toppled Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi. If the civil war in Syria leads to the downfall of President Bashar Assad — even if, like Gadhafi, he gets blown up by a U.S. drone or a NATO fighter jet — they’ll call that a revolution too.
But those weren’t/aren’t revolutions. A revolution is “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” A new system. Those are the key words. Even if it occurs as the result of dramatic street violence, a change in leaders doesn’t mean there has been a revolution. If the system doesn’t change much, a revolution has not taken place.
Egypt’s Tahrir Square was dramatic, an important event. But it wasn’t a revolution. This became evident last year, when Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrested and jailed President Morsi. If the 2011 Tahrir uprising against Mubarak been a revolution, Sisi — a high-ranking officer who served most of his career under Mubarak — would not have been in the military at all, much less a figure powerful enough to stage a coup.
In a real revolution, the old system — all of its most important components — are replaced. Military leaders aren’t merely shuffled around or replaced; the army’s core mission and organizational structure are radically altered. It isn’t enough to rejigger boardrooms and change CEOs; the class structure itself — which defines every other role in society — is changed. (In China, for example, landlords went from a privileged class to impoverished pariahs after 1949.) Reforms don’t make a revolution. Everything old gets trashed. Society starts from scratch.
The bar for whether a political change qualifies as a full-fledged revolution is extremely high.
And yeah, the definition matters. It matters a lot. Because revolution — capital-R, blood-in-the-streets, head-on-a-stick Revolution is by far the biggest threat to our system of corporate capitalism and the ruling classes who have been stealing almost every cent of the fortune we the people create with our hard work. If our business overlords convince us that revolution is something short of actually changing the system — in other words, getting rid of them — then they’re safe no matter what. Even if we protest, even if we turn violent, we will never truly emancipate ourselves.
Maybe they’ll pay higher taxes. For a little while. Until they bribe their way back out of them. Until we destroy the 1 percent, stripping them of their money, power and social status, we will be their slaves. And that will never happen if we forget what revolution is.
Bearing in mind what revolution means, Ukraine comes nowhere close.
Consider this quote from Nicolai Petro, a politics professor at the University of Rhode Island, on Amy Goodman’s radio show:
“Yes, [Ukraine] is pretty much a classical coup, because under the current constitution the president may be—may resign or be impeached, but only after the case is reviewed by the Constitutional Court and then voted by a three-fourth majority of the Parliament. And then, either case, either the prime minister or the speaker of the Parliament must become the president. Instead, that’s not what happened at all. There was an extraordinary session of Parliament, after—it was held after most members were told there would be no session and many had left town. And then, under the chairmanship of the radical party, Svoboda, this rump Parliament declared that the president had self-removed himself from the presidency.”
Note the trappings of “legitimacy”: Constitutional Court, Parliament, preexisting political parties, laws created under the old regime.
Under a revolution, old institutions would be abolished. Anyone who had anything to do with them would be discredited, and possibly in danger of being executed. Parties, if there were any, would be new (unless they’d been operating clandestinely), with revolutionary politics and brand-new organizational structures. You certainly wouldn’t see old establishment figures like the recently released former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko (a leader of the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, which also wasn’t a revolution), seriously discussed as a potential new ruler.
Many Ukrainians know what revolution is — and they want one. “We need new people who can say no to the oligarchs, not just the old faces,” a 25-year-old economist told The New York Times. “The problem is that the old forces are trying to come back to take their old chairs,” said a shipping broker who waved a sign outside parliament that read: “Revolution, Not a Court Coup!”
U.S. reporters quote the would-be revolutionaries, but they can’t understand their meaning. After all, their country’s founding “revolution,” the American Revolution, was nothing of the sort. The elites became even more powerful. Slavery continued. Women still couldn’t vote. The poor and middle class didn’t gain power.
Just another coup.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer. www.tedrall.com © 2014 Ted Rall